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Women have always been photographed through a ‘male lens’, looking at them as sexualised ‘objects’ – here are ordinary women of Bhutan, going about their lives, seen through a feminist lens.
I’m talking about photography, but it doesn’t mean that I’m a professional photographer; in fact I don’t know to operate a DSLR, but I’m interested in narrating stories.
Yes, I’m interested in narrating ‘her-stories’ through photographs. Visual narration is interesting both as a consumer and as a producer. In the growing technological world, the phone camera has made it easy for me to document ‘her-stories’ to counter ‘his-stories’ of women.
I believe that photographing moments means capturing the socio-economic and cultural narratives of people.
In September 2018, nine of us (enthusiastic farmers and friends who have been investing in the area of sustainable living – Ramesh Cheemachanahalli, Ravi, Shivu, Murthy, Suhail, Nagesh, Punith and Jnanaswami) went on to explore Bhutan. Our main intention was to meet farmers in Bhutan to understand their model of sustainable agriculture. We met some humble human beings who inspired us to relook at our lifestyle.
Bhutan’s serenity is heaven for photographers. There were moments when I felt that two eyes were not sufficient enough to capture the beauty of Bhutan. Seventy five percent of the land is still green making it the best place to live and to travel. Besides serene nature, I was amazed to reflect on myself and how comfortable I was. I could figure out that the comfort was because I was not ‘gazed at.’ As a traveller, I didn’t have to face ‘male-gaze’ in Bhutan. Thanks to Bhutanese for making a woman traveller comfortable without any ‘male-gaze.’ It obviously boosts the confidence of a woman to travel and explore more.
Photography is a tool of documentation and a space of self expression. Like most of the professions in history where ‘her-stories’ are erased, even in the field of photography the role of women is less talked of. Photography has the potential to capture moments which eventually turns out to be memory. In most of the cultures across the world women are considered as the ‘preservers of memory’ which allowed them to access and even control camera during its inception.
However, the agency to control the camera in those days was to preserve the ‘cultural memory’ of families and their domestic space. In the 1880s Kodak’s advertisements for their hand-held cameras addressed a new female clientele as both producers and consumers of photography.
As photography evolved women also became the ‘subject’ for photography. In the patriarchal society the ‘male gaze’ has prioritised objective representation of women. The ‘male lens’ of the visual art has been sexist.
Although women were clearly objectified through sexist visuals, the camera also functioned as a tool of self-determination, offering a space in which women could forge new identities. We have seen many women photographers who have fore grounded counter visual narratives through photography to debunk the sexist narratives. Some of the feminist studies have also talked about the important role played by photography in the second-wave feminism to critique the established visual conventions through which gender, sexual, racial, caste and class identities have been constructed.
When I returned from Bhutan on 4th October 2018, I had to dump all the photographs from my phone to laptop. While I was going through the pictures fortunately it gave me immense joy to see series of Bhutanese women and their everyday being captured in the camera.
It wasn’t a planned project to capture only women; hence it was a surprise to see that most of the pictures were of women and it left me to think of ‘feminist lens’ of cameras. Oh! wait… it’s not a lens which one could find in the Canon or Nikon stores. It’s a lens that would have curbed sexist representation of women in visuals, the ‘feminist lens’ has the potential to stop the objectification of women.
That’s the moment when I wanted to share ‘her-stories’ of Bhutanese women through the photo-essay!
Six days stay in Bhutan gave a glimpse of Bhutanese women’s strength. They are phenomenal. The photographs here take us to their world of farming, market system, art and crafts, family and motherhood.
Her lens expressing to my lens.
(Farmer in local market, Paro, Bhutan)
Lens fixed on her produce!
(Local Farmer in weekend market. Paro, Bhutan)
Immersed in her business
Control of production and consumption
(Local market, Paro, Bhutan)
Focused in Museum
(Employee in National Folk Heritage Museum, Thimphu, Bhutan)
Wheel of life!
(Devotees in Phajoding Monastery, Thimphu, Bhutan)
Roadside vendor in Bhutan
Farmers in Phunakha, Bhutan
Hand in Hand
(Mother and Daughter in Thimphu, Bhutan)
Her hands speak!
(Producer in Thimphu, Bhutan)
Her colourful world
Creating her Colourful World
Finances in her control
(Owner of a restaurant in Phunakha, Bhutan)
On her heels
(Phajoding Monastery, Thimphu, Bhutan)
On her heels, Thimphu, Bhutan
Chit-Chatting in their space
(Devotees in Phajoding Monastery, Thimphu, Bhu
Consumers in local shop, Phunakha, Bhutan
The model for my lens, Paro, Bhutan
Fixed her lens on her product
(Vendor in local market, Paro, Bhutan)
Their business world
(Local market in Paro, Bhutan)
S – She
Eyes Fixed and Focused
Chai break during her business
Balancing the domestic and professional life
Generations of Phenomenal Women!
Women’s Business World in Frame
More the Women in Frame; More the Strength and Joy!
(Local Market in Paro, Bhutan)
(Beauty in Bhutan)
On her heels. Wheel of life.
(Devotee, Tiger Nest Monastery, Bhutan)
Couldn’t stop myself from taking a picture with this brave Bhutanese woman.
Images source: Vijayashanthi Murthy
Assistant Professor at St. Joseph's College, Bengaluru.
Former Assistant Professor at Jain University, Bengaluru.
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